Early last week, we were inundated with small gray moths. You couldn’t open a door without two or three coming inside. Moths inside are cool for Izzy, Maddy and the cat — all like to play with them.
One evening, at dusk, Maddy took her bug cage and went out on the deck. In about 10 minutes she was back with a cage full of moths. My curiosity piqued, I went downstairs to Google “little gray moth” to see if I could put a name with the fuzzy little face.
Next I heard a grownup “Wow” coming from upstairs. My wife appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “I just saw a little gray bird fly or jump from the dogwood tree to one of the big trees and back,” she said.
I went upstairs to look and there, perched on the dogwood, was an eastern screech owl. Sitting on a bare dogwood limb framed by the dim twilight, the owl looked elfin. It soon launched itself to the side of a large locust, then back to the dogwood; then to a grapevine and back to the dogwood. After a couple more of these sorties, I realized the owl was feeding on the moths.
We called the kids in and for 15 or 20 minutes Izzy, Maddy, Mom and I watched as the little owl tracked moths, then launched itself to tree, or branch, or grapevine in pursuit of the tiny morsel and then returned fly-catcher-like to its perch on the dogwood. While the owl appeared gray in the dusk, a look through binoculars revealed that it was a red-phase bird.
Now there were two mysteries. What was this little moth engulfing our home and enticing screech owls and how common was this fly-catching behavior? I quickly realized I was in over my antennae trying to Google this moth. Do you have any idea how many different little gray moths there are in the world? So I decided to rely on the “old-fashioned” way of seeking information — I asked someone smarter than me.
Paul Super, science coordinator at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s Appalachian Highlands Learning Center at Purchase Knob, identified the moth as Eupithecia sp. — common name pug. He noted that it is very difficult to separate the different species of pugs. Super said there were at least a dozen species of pugs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the most prevalent by far was the common pug, E. miserulata.
This tiny gray moth has a wingspan of less than an inch. The grayish wings have small disc-like black dots. The common pug ranges from Florida to Nova Scotia and west to Texas. There is also a western population in California and Washington. It overwinters as a pupa, probably accounting for its early spring flight.
As for screech owls catching bugs, it seems insects are a large part of this little character’s diet. During a 1927 study in Nebraska, eight screech owls were dissected. Those stomachs contained 210 locusts, 2,757 other insects, 2 mice and 1 bird.
Renowned ornithologist George M. Sutton wrote about his encounter with a fly-catching screech owl. “At first we were somewhat mystified by her actions. Soon we made out, however, that she was capturing insects, which were flying about the peripheral twigs of the tree. Some of these she evidently snatched from the twigs or leaves with her feet; others she caught in mid-air, with her beak. Since I had never known Screech Owls to capture prey thus I changed my position so as to be able to see the bird more clearly. From my new station under the elm tree I saw the bird catch thus, Flycatcher-wise, at least twenty insects, most, if not all of them, the large beetles locally called June bugs or May beetles.”
All anyone has to do to learn something new in nature is pay attention.
Paige Barlow is a University of Georgia PhD candidate working out of the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto, outside of Franklin. Barlow is researching the effects of land use on different species of birds in Macon County.
It’s no secret that birds and bird populations around the world are facing serious challenges. A recent article by Cagan H. Sekercioglu of the Stanford Center for Conservation biology published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that up to 14 percent of all bird species may be extinct or facing extinction by 2100. And even birds not in imminent threat of extinction are experiencing serious population declines. According to Sekercioglu and his co-authors, total bird populations are estimated to have fallen by nearly 25 percent since 1500. Habitat loss along with climate change and the spread of invasive species are perceived to be major contributors to these avian woes.
Birds are colorful, fascinating, accessible creatures. These attributes have combined to make birding or birdwatching one of the most popular recreational pursuits and/or hobbies in the world. Whether you’re a “lister,” globetrotting to get to 601 species, or a weekend warrior, spending your leisure time in pursuit of fleeting glances and mellifluous warbles, or a backyard feeder enjoying the antics of chickadees, titmice and hummingbirds through your kitchen window, our feathered friends are sure to please.
Biologists, ornithologists and researchers have taken advantage of the public’s interest in our avian neighbors to create numerous ‘citizen-science” projects like the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count, International Migration Day, Project Feeder Watch and many more. These events are widely publicized and hugely popular.
While Barlow will be the primary researcher in the field and at the computer — where she hopes to construct mathematical models from her data — she is seeking public input. Barlow noted that while she would be researching the effects of land use on bird species she also wanted to “... direct my research so that it is interesting and helpful for the residents of Macon County.” To that effect, she has created a survey that lists bird species by habitat and migration behavior. She encourages interested parties to go to www.surveymonkey.com/s/9N6YBPC and fill out the survey.
Barlow said there are about 100 species listed on the survey but that would be whittled down to a subset of 20 to 30 species. According to Barlow some of the birds generating a lot of interest to date include Swainson’s warbler, cerulean warbler, golden-winged warbler, winter wren, Bewick’s wren and eastern meadowlark.
Invited for tea
I opened the door around 7 a.m. last Saturday and spring hit me square in the face. Actually a cold misty breeze hit me square in the face but I got an earful of spring. “Drink your tea – ea-ea-ea-ea!” wailed an eastern towhee from the brambles at the edge of my yard.
Now chickadees have been singing and so have Carolina wrens and cardinals and some song sparrows’ teakettles have started to boil. But these troubadours are likely to loosen up their vocal chords anytime during the winter if we get a couple of warm sunshiny days. And while you may hear an emphatic and prolonged “drrriinnkk” or “driinnkk teaaa” or “tea-ea-ea” from a wintertime towhee, the bawdy, lascivious, full-throated “Drink your tea-ea-ea-ea-ea!” is generally reserved for karaoke night at the local singles bar after a long cold winter.
Towhees in the yard aren’t the only signs of spring.
A walk around Lake Junaluska last Thursday produced 20-plus tree swallows. An unidentified shorebird was also observed at the lake. I didn’t have binoculars and the distance was too great and the lighting too bad to make out more than a silhouette working the edge of the small channel that’s left in the middle of the lake. The bird was foraging like a sandpiper and from its size and posture, I would guess pectoral.
Pectorals are early migrants and commonly seen around the lake in migration when it’s drawn down. Wayne Forsythe reported pectorals along with American golden plovers, killdeers, horned larks and American pipits along Hooper Lane in Henderson County last Sunday.
Birds aren’t the only winged harbingers of spring. Butterflies are being reported across the region. Question marks and mourning cloaks have been reported from Kingsport, Tenn. And mourning cloaks have also been reported from Catawba County. Of course one look up at the red maple buds should clue you in that the brown leaf litter will soon be parting as the green shoots of trout lily, bloodroot, toothwort, trailing arbutus and other spring ephemerals claw their way to sunshine.
This is not to say that Ma Nature won’t dust us with another snow or two. I remember back in April 2005 when I was surveying for migrants at Balsam Mountain Preserve. It was 30 degrees, snowing, and some places had half an inch of the white stuff on the ground. But when I could find sheltered places out of the wind, early migrants like northern parula warblers, blackburnian warblers, black-and-white warblers, blue-headed vireos and rose-breasted grosbeaks were singing in the snow. So go ahead and fire up your teapot because before you know it, it will be time to sit on your deck and “Drink your tea-ea-ea-ea-ea!”
White Nose Syndrome just miles from WNC
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) announced in mid-February that two bats from Worley’s cave had tested positive for White Nose Syndrome (WNS).
The cave, officially designated Morrell Cave by the U.S. Board on Geographical Names in 1980 but more commonly known as Worley’s or Morril’s cave, is located just southeast of Bluff City, Tenn., only about an hour and a half from Asheville.
Two tri-colored bats (formerly eastern pipistrelle) tested positive for the fungus (Geomyces destructans). While scientists are still not one hundred percent sure that the fungus is the sole causative agent, bat-to-bat-transmission of the fungus has been observed.
Whatever the cause, the malaise is clearly catastrophic. Mortality in some affected hibernacula has exceeded 90 percent. It is estimated that somewhere between one-half million and one million bats have succumbed to WNS, including at least 25,000 endangered Indiana bats.
Six species of bats — Indiana bat, little brown bat, big brown bat, northern long-eared bat, small-footed bat and tri-colored bat (formerly eastern pipistrelle) — are known to be susceptible to WNS.
Tennessee joins New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Virginia to become the tenth state to document WNS. Worley’s cave is the most southern and most western site, to date, where WNS has been recorded. The cave is only about 65 miles from known infected sites in Virginia.
But the prospect of further western and/or southern spread is a scary prospect for biologists and bat fanciers. Tennessee may have more caves than any state in the nation and a single cave in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hibernaculum for nearly nine percent of the total estimated population of endangered Indiana bats.
And now for things that make you go hmmmmm....
You and I and all the taxpayers across this great land have paid about $14 million for ivory-billed woodpecker conservation since 2005. Never mind the fact that not one ivory-billed woodpecker has been conclusively documented since the late 1930s early 1940s.
Bat researchers are overjoyed that the Obama administration has secured $1.9 million in funding for the study of WNS. Maybe if we glued feathers to their wings and took fuzzy videos, we could get some dollars to study this devastating disease.
Wait a minute! That would be forethought — what am I thinking?
Bird’s the word
North Carolina’s state parks and Audubon North Carolina have joined together to celebrate the “Year of the Birds” in 2010.
Birds grab our attention. Just ask my wife, who discovered, unexpectedly, the other afternoon that the Carolina wren that nests in her clothespin basket every spring also roosts there in cold weather. I’m sure if someone took the time to translate her hastily shouted expletive it would be, “My goodness, you surprised me! I didn’t expect to find such a beautiful fluttery creature in my basket this time of year.” And nothing says spring quite like the first shiny black, white and crimson rose-breasted grosbeak that shows up at our feeder on that sunny April morning.
In fact, a 2009 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service report estimated one of every five Americans is a “bird-watcher,” defined as someone who took a trip of at least one mile for the primary purpose of observing birds, or someone who closely observed and tried to identify birds around their home. These enthusiasts contributed $36 billion to the national economy in 2006, according to the report.
But for many around the world, across the country and here in the Old North State whose avocation is protecting and preserving our natural environment, this palpable connection between man and bird means much more than a business opportunity.
Chris Canfield, executive director of Audubon North Carolina, talked about the creation of “Year of the Birds.”
“Our partnership with N.C. State Parks began when I was asked to speak to a gathering of superintendents. I asked staff here to analyze what parklands overlapped with our Important Bird Areas program. As it turned out, about 100,000 acres of the parks, more than half of the park holdings at the time were in IBAs or potential IBAs. Lew Ledford [Lewis Ledford, director North Carolina state parks] and I put our heads together and realized we had so many common goals — expanding parks, heightening environmental awareness among the public, documenting the value of parklands for birds and other wildlife. So we committed to working together. The NC Birding Trail was one excellent outcome that grew, in part, out of that commitment. The Year of the Birds is the latest public expression of the power of both parks and birds to connect people to nature. For me, and I know for many others, noticing the birds inhabiting an area is central to my understanding of that place. Our state parks hold some of the most cherished landscapes in North Carolina, and they provide wonderful venues for the public to explore nature, including looking for the birds emblematic of each location.”
For more information regarding the Year of the Birds go to http://nc.audubon.org/news-events/north-carolina-state-parks-declares-2010-year-birds.
The good; the bad and the ugly
Ben Morrison, compiler of the Wilmot, Ohio, Christmas Bird Count, contacted the Ohio Birds Records Committee and provided documentation for the purple martin I wrote about in the Jan. 20 Naturalist’s Corner. According to Gabe Leidy, compiler of the Ohio rare bird reports, the record is sure to be accepted.
A single purple martin lounging in Ohio in the winter surely has little species-wide implications from an ornithological perspective but these little tidbits offer a glimpse into “the secret lives” of birds. We tend to lump all other creatures into groups like cows, bears, dogs, deer, chickens, hawks, etc. We forget that all species, like homo sapiens, are composed of individuals with individual stories.
No one knows why that particular female martin missed her flight to South America. She showed up in Apple Creek in August with a late fledgling. Perhaps her mothering instinct was stronger than her migrating instinct. Or perhaps she was simply old and weary and not up to another long rigorous migration. We will never know why. But because of conscientious birders and dedicated compilers we do know that from August 2009 to Jan. 10, 2010, one female martin stayed in Apple Creek, Ohio aided and abetted by one Atlee Yoder who tossed meal worms into the air to nourish her.
Yoder wasn’t responding to the needs of purple martins as a species. His individual story was touched by the individual story of this one little bird, and that’s a good thing.
Another avian vagabond showed up this winter in Georgia — an ivory gull, the first ever recorded for Georgia, appeared in late January at West Point Dam. While this snow-white Arctic denizen thrilled birders and provided many photo ops, it unfortunately met an agonizing end. It died from what was reported as an “apparent” predator attack.
But there were reports on the Georgia listserv of would be photographers talking of throwing rocks at the reluctant bird in order to get shots of it in flight. It leaves one to wonder if an errant rock could have caused the “apparent” predator injuries.
Other bad bird news is emanating from south Louisiana where (as of Feb. 3) more than 100 snow geese have been found dead in grain fields. The geese are thought to have died from aflatoxicosis contracting from ingesting contaminated grain.
Louisiana Wildlife official and biologists are closely monitoring the situation hoping to avoid a repeat of 1999 when more than 10,000 snow geese perished due to aflatoxicosis.
Just when you thought the ivory-billed woodpecker would be left to slide back into the mossy hearts and hopes of dyed-in-the-wool believers, reports of photos have surfaced once again.
This whole dubious, sordid and convoluted tale has been and is still playing out over the Internet. One good place to catch up on it is at http://ivorybills.blogspot.com.
Suffice it to say — still no definitive evidence.
And now a brief senior moment report. Thanks to DeLene Beeland at http://sciencetrio.wordpress.com for pointing out that in last week’s column regarding the red wolf talk at the Folk Art Center, I referred to the red wolf as Canis lupus (grey wolf) rather than C. rufus.
And the dam - came tumblin’ tumblin’
The Dillsboro Dam story is as twisted and convoluted as the Tuck itself. You had Jackson County commissioners who made property rights one of the underpinnings of their election campaigns voting in favor of eminent domain to wrest the dam out of Duke’s hands. You had one recently elected commissioner trying to get the county to drop its lawsuit, who, while a member of another county board, said Duke wasn’t doing nearly enough and that if they didn’t do more, lawsuits would be filed.
Current Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan called the Tuckasegee River Cooperative Stakeholder process flawed and commissioner Joe Cowan called it a farce. Both are right and wrong to some extent. The process was flawed to the exact extent that stakeholders did not come informed and prepared to play hardball with Duke.
The process was never a farce. Duke was using all angles and all available resources to get the best relicensing agreement it could get. Agencies like U.S. Fish and Wildlife, North Carolina Division of Water Quality, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and other agencies that have actual relicensing authority were there to let Duke know they had concerns. In a traditional relicensing process, these entities and Duke would have been locked behind closed door until time for public comment.
Cowan was also quoted in the Sylva Herald as saying, “... I know they’re [Duke] in cahoots with the whitewater people ...” I imagine this is reference to some of the concessions garnered by American Whitewater through the stakeholders’ process.
American Whitewater was the one stakeholder group, with no licensing authority, who had done their homework and had a game plan and was dedicated to it. And they received concessions from Duke. Sadly the county and other participants were not so well prepared.
And remember, any and all stakeholders could have and should have come armed to the teeth. The worst that could have happened would have been for them to be asked to leave the stakeholder meetings. In which case they would’ve had the avenue to become interveners, as Jackson County and others did as the FERC process moved forward. But all that is water over the dam, so to speak.
The dam is coming down, so what does that mean for the river? According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are 11 species of fish found in the nearly mile-long impounded reservoir behind the dam. The stretch of river immediately below the dam has 38 species of fish. The river above the impounded reservoir has 24 species of fish.
The federally endangered elktoe mussel is found below the impoundment and above it. Removal of the dam will help reconnect these populations and expand the overall range of this endangered animal. The imperiled sicklefin redhorse is also found below the dam and removal of the dam will allow the sicklefin to extend its range upriver. A U.S. Fish & Wildlife report states, “Restoring the reservoir to a free-flowing river will make this portion of the river usable to a suite of native fish and other aquatic animals,” and that’s good news.
The Sylva Herald report noted a “conciliatory” tone among commissioners with reference to Duke and the dam. It’s worth a try. With adequate funding, the land alongside the river in Dillsboro could make a beautiful riverside park. And maybe they could talk Duke into dropping a couple of giant boulders in the river there so T.J. Walker’s Dillsboro Inn could enjoy the nice rippling sound of the river without having to view the debris atop the dam.
And let me say that I totally concur with Cowan and other Duke dissers that say Duke is not doing all it could or should. But sadly it’s a sign of the times. Cowan mentioned that Duke was not being a “good corporate neighbor.” I submit that, in these socio-economic times, good corporate neighbor is an oxymoron.
And then there were none
Atlee Yoder’s purple martin houses are in storage, out of the raw Ohio weather, awaiting spring and the first scout of the new season. But herein lies the rub — Yoder’s houses did not come down until last week.
Yoder, an Amish farmer from Apple Creek in the heart of Ohio’s Amish Country is, like many of his Amish neighbors who eschew most of our modern contrivances and conveniences, quite partial to these organic bug zappers.
Last August just as Yoder’s breeding colony was departing for the balmy climes of South America, a female martin with a late fledgling showed up at his houses. Being neighborly, Yoder left his houses up and the birds stayed — and stayed. September passed, then October and finally in November the fledgling disappeared. But the adult female lingered.
According to posts from the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s Web site forum and their Facebook site and from Ohio birds listserv, the female martin stayed until Jan. 10, 2010. Reports say that Yoder fed the bird on Jan. 10 by tossing mealworms into the air for her to catch as he had been doing for the last month or so. According to those reports the bird appeared healthy at that time, but failed to reappear the next day, or the next and thus appeared to have flown the coop.
And now for the official disclaimer — a purple martin overwintering anywhere in the U.S. should be big news for birders in general and the ornithological community in particular, yet documentation of this bird is sparse and sometimes contradictory. I have no reason to doubt Su Snyder’s (a member of the Greater Mohican Audubon Society) photo, which she so graciously provided for this story but other pieces of the story are puzzling.
According to the Ohio listserv the bird was supposedly reported on the Wilmot, Ohio, Christmas Bird Count. But when I go to Audubon’s Web site and pull up that particular CBC there is no mention of a purple martin. But then the bird is mentioned in a Dec. 22, 2009, Ohio statewide “rare bird alert.”
I have emailed a member of the Ohio Birds Record Committee, the Ohio Ornithological Society and the compiler of the Wilmot CBC but to date have received no replies. I imagine these people are being cautious and working to cross all “t”s and dot all “i”s before commenting in public. There might be questions of the birds’ origin i.e. were they captive reared?
Hopefully, this will be sorted out and I will be able to update you on this seemingly “first ever U.S. overwintering purple martin.” In the meantime if you’re interested in purple martins check out the Purple Martin Conservation Association’s website at purplemartin.org or their Facebook site.
At least it’s not an ivory-billed woodpecker, right?